With the new year right around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about who I am as a person. What am I all about? What is important to me? How do I want to live my life?
The new year is always a time for self reflection, but I wanted to go a bit deeper. I wanted to come up with a set of ideas that define how I live. This brought me back to Aristotle’s idea of first principles.
Whenever Aristotle worked in philosophy, he always searched for ‘the first basis from which a thing is known’ or the first principle. He would start with his beliefs that are known and then work backwards to find the underlying truths those beliefs are built on.
Put another way, first principles are self evident truths that serve as our core knowledge and understanding. They are the foundation of what we know to be true.
First principles are the building blocks of every belief. They can help you make decisions, think clearly, and live a better life. To uncover first principles you have to engage in a simple three step process.
1. Identify your current beliefs.
We have many, of course, but simply start to notice them and write them down. In this case, I started looking at how I worked, where my time went, and what actually mattered to me. This helped me define my current belief system. Despite what I thought or said, these were things that I actually did.
2. Break down these beliefs into their building blocks.
This step is all about deconstructing those same beliefs and finding the underlying truths within them. What is really happening there. Why do you do what you do? What do you actually care about? Not just on the surface, but at a deeper level.
3. Re-build to your first principles.
Based on these building blocks you can reconstruct these truths into a clearer and more proven set of beliefs and assumptions. This is where first principles are born. The process is essentially like taking apart a machine and then putting it back together without all the unnecessary bells and whistles. It is clearer and far more useful.
Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.Aristotle
It’s this methodology that I wanted to apply to my own life. What are the fundamental truths that I want to live by? What are my first principles?
This is and always will be a work in progress, a very fluid set of beliefs that define who you are today. It is something you should revisit regularly and re-evaluate just as often. Here are my first principle so far.
Invest in myself.
I wouldn’t call myself risk averse, but rather there are things I prefer to bet on and things I don’t. I’m not crazy about investments or stocks or the like, but I’ll happyily invest in myself at all costs. Books, courses, ventures, and the like are things that I spend on, that I invest in, because I realize I’d rather bet on myself than anything else.
Who knows if my return will be great, but I realized it’s the best approach for the things I hope to achieve.
Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.
This is a quote from Benjamin Franklin, but the idea is one that resonates strongly with me. All of my ventures and projects and experiments, they need some direction and this gives them exactly that. To strive for something worthwhile, not just for fun, but with real purpose. It gives me direction in my work and my writing.
Be who I am.
Not in an existential way, but simply in a creative way, as far as it goes for having a style. It’s easy to copy others and their style, their voice, and their meaning. It’s the best place to learn and refine your skills, but eventually you need to find your own. I’m starting to realize that I create best when I’m free of any influence and just able to create in my own way.
Moreover, it relates to an important idea that everything I make is original, in that it is crafted from my personal perspective. No one else can create something the way I do. Even the order of the words on this page is unique to me.
Think long term.
Thinking long term makes a world of difference. Realizing that the time is there to achieve my many ideas and projects over the years, puts me at ease, when I need to buckle down and focus on a single thing.
The long term approach helps me understand that my work can be sequential and not simultaneous. I can do things as they need to be done, without the pressure of choosing. I don’t have to feel like I’m neglecting one thing for another.
Always be curious.
Learning is never a waste of time. No matter how unrelated or random something may be, there is always value in acquiring new knowledge. Put in another way: always be curious.
Curiosity is like a metal detector for my mind, pointing me in the right direction, towards things of interest and value. Don’t ignore it.
Write to know.
Writing has so many benefits, it’s hard to remember them all. But most importantly, for me, writing helps me understand and organize my thoughts. It helps me make sense of the world, what I’m thinking, what I’m doing, and so much more. Writing is and should always be a lifelong habit.
Be kind, be humble, and be honest.
There is nothing worse than feeling like I’ve acted poorly. From being rude to lacking humility, from telling lies to not be authentic, it’s not something I’m able to get past. The best way to handle that is to simply not do it. Be kind, be humble, and be honest.
When everyone goes left, go right.
Chasing trends is not a good approach to work or life. Don’t follow the crowd mindlessly, as they often just jump on the latest hype train that’s rolling through the media. Instead, look for the discrepancies, the things being ignored that shouldn’t be. This is where the great value lies, if you can uncover it. Pay attention to these trends, but don’t get overwhelmed by them.
Master a skill.
There are many paths to walk, but I’ve realized through my exploration of generalists that mastery is essential. Master has value that simply can’t be found in other places. Whatever I choose to do, mastery should be part of the equation in some distinct way.
The credibility, the opportunities, and the stability that can come from mastery are impossible to replicate. Master something.
Prioritize friends and family.
I’m introverted, but I also have a group of very close friends and family that mean the world to me. There are things more important in this world than work, success, and ambition. It takes balance, but I can’t see why anything else should hold a higher priority than these relationships. After all, who will you share your successes and failures with if you neglect everyone else?
Remember life is a shared experience.
Finally, I need to remind myself that everyone is going through this crazy thing called life together. Everyone has their own demons and struggles. Don’t judge, don’t compare, and don’t hate.
Show empathy, treat others how I want to be treated, and be happy.
Learning without reflection is a waste. Reflection without learning is dangerous.Confucius
I know I’m forgetting things and I know these will change, but the exercise was a useful one all the same. Giving thought to who I am and what I stand for made some things clear in my life that were otherwise unknown.
As you’re getting ready for the new year, I’d recommend taking some time to think about your own first principles and understanding who you really are. What better time to do so?